Interview with Branding and Fine Art Photographer Carla Watkins
Carla Watkins is a branding photographer for colourful, curious souls, and a fine art photographer rooted deep in fairy tales and magic.
She lives and works on the Essex coast in the UK, which suits her mermaid heart, and is proudly both an entirely self-taught and full-time professional photographer. I spoke with Carla to find out more about her unique style of photography.
How did you get into photography and what made you decide to become a photographer?
I’ve always had a little point & shoot camera to document my world, but I learned to shoot properly aged 19, during an internship at the Telegraph. My manager there was a photographer and the enthusiasm was contagious! I spent the next 10 years plotting, launching & running side businesses while secretly wondering if I could one day be a ‘proper’ photographer – they say your best strengths are often right under your nose. Blogging has also been a passion of mine for a very long time (I started my first in 2004) and I’ve always done the photography for that, and for my other businesses as they grew.
There wasn’t really a specific point when I decided to be a photographer, it was more of a gradual realisation that I already was one, and there was nothing stopping me taking it further except confidence! I officially launched my business and turned pro in 2016 and went full-time in mid-2018.
I am proud to be an entirely self taught photographer with no formal training except the occasional workshop on lighting – my degree was in publishing & design. Like all creatives, I am constantly learning, and hope that my story can inspire others who didn’t train in photography.
What kit do you shoot with and what would you say are your essentials to have on a shoot?
I’m currently shooting dual Sony / Canon and really enjoying it! My Sony is the A7 III and was a deliberate choice for its autofocus capabilities, and because I wanted to have experience with both mirrorless and DSLR. My Canon is a 5D Mk III; it’s a wonderful workhorse of a camera. The different brands have different strengths, and I am loving the dual system, except that the aperture and shutter speed dials are in exactly opposite places. Keeps me on my toes!
I use mostly prime, mostly Sigma lenses, all Canon fit with a Sigma adapter on the Sony, so I can use all of them on both bodies. I think I’ve finally got my dream set of lenses – Sigma 24-35mm f/2 Art, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, Canon 85mm f/1.8 and Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art. Between them I can cover most situations, from personal branding to flat-lays and stock, to events to wizard school (which I shoot twice a year in a castle!).
Pixapro and Canon speedlites, and Elinchrom studio lights & triggers, plus a selection of softboxes and an ancient set of continuous lights complete my setup – I have a little studio which I use for product shots, costume storage and the occasional boudoir or mermaid shoot!
Shoot essentials are definitely cameras, speedlites, diffuser caps, 24-35mm and 50mm lenses. 90% of my work is done with those – I also always carry a reflector just in case. My style is generally super bold and vibrant, so I often use my speedlites for a bit of fill light. I also have a couple of small softboxes with speedlite adapters, so I don’t have to trek my massive studio lights onto shoots with me.
You specialise in branding photography, which is an unusual niche. What attracted you to this, and what do you enjoy about working with businesses?
Amazing question! I’ve always been fascinated with small businesses & creating a happier working life – I love hearing people’s business stories and getting to know other people on the same journey. While working full-time I always had a side business or three, and I have a solid background in web design & content. I spent a lot of time sighing in frustration over the photos that people would provide for their websites, which were either terrible, or ok but didn’t show off their often amazing businesses or services in the best way.
When I broached the subject with clients and employers, I found over and over that they knew their businesses really well, they knew they needed better photos but didn’t know how to improve their own, and they were terrified of hiring a proper photographer because they didn’t know what to ask them for.
Once I’d decided to make the leap to professional photography, for me it was a really obvious thing to offer – every business needs good photos, and between my photography experience, running my own businesses and my web/design/digital marketing day job career, I can create gorgeous, on-brand images for almost any business, which really help them with marketing and the monster that is social media!
And my superpower is putting people at ease, so this really helps when people are nervous of having their photo taken to be used in marketing.
My favourite part is watching my clients bloom once they have their photos delivered – they’re suddenly proud and excited to share their business with the world again!
Do you think your photography has a certain style and look, or do you enjoy experimenting with different techniques and styles?
Yes and yes! My branding photography style is zingy, bold, vibrant and colourful – it’s not for the faint hearted, and it brings businesses to life. This style also sneaks into my larp & cosplay work.
My personal and fine art work is dreamy and ethereal, heavily inspired by books and has a really magical vibe. I do experiment with different styles when I can, and I’m always excited to learn new things in photography, lighting, posing, but come back to my own style every time.
What do you feel influences your photography? Do your other businesses work alongside the photography?
A sense of joy and a colourful soul – and a real burning passion to bring out the personality of each business I work with. People buy from people, and the more you can get who you are across in your images, the better! I’m also influenced by a deep desire to bring a bit of magic, play and imagination back to people’s lives.
In my personal work, dreams, fairy tales and fiction are my biggest influences. I’m a bookworm and ex-librarian, and I love to read, daydream and then bring those images to life in my photography. I’m also part of the larp, mermaid and steampunk communities locally & nationally, and get a lot of inspiration and joy from working with them – and self portraiture, though it’s harder than you’d expect when wearing a mermaid tail!
My other businesses work really well alongside my photography – one is fine art, portrait & mermaid photography, one is a mermaid pop up shop, and one is a stationery subscription company. They’re all expressions of me, and between them and my branding photography, there’s usually something of interest for almost anyone I meet!
As a female photographer, do you feel that you face any particular challenges? Do you feel that the industry is favourable towards women, or would you like to see any particular changes?
I hate saying it, but it can be really hard to be taken seriously. I’ve had my fair share of patronising explanations from male photographers while I’m shooting – the cherry on the cake was probably the bloke who, completely uninvited, stood in the light while I was trying to deliberately create lens flare in a portrait, and then said “take it again darling – I’ll block the flare for you”.
Fortunately I have a reasonably techie background, so when people try to blind me with gear specs (and it happens surprisingly often!), I can hold my own and blind them right back again – although I am very critical of my own work, I’m more concerned with the emotion and story in my images than pure technical perfection for the sake of technical perfection.
The industry isn’t, in my experience, overly female friendly, even down to things like finding a holster or a bag that fits properly around my boobs and my hips, but I’m proud to be professional in my field and hopefully changing attitudes as I go.
Having said that, one of my support groups is an incredible community of female photographers who are the most generous and collaborative I’ve ever found in any discipline – come and join us over at SheClicks!
Changes I’d love to see include a better ratio of women in manufacturers’ ambassador programmes – on Sony’s current ambassador page, there are 82 men and 6 women listed. I’d really like to see that shift. I’d like to see more female speakers and workshops, and a lessening of the assumption that a male with a camera is a proper pro, and a woman with the same camera is an assistant or just a hobbyist. Hobbyist photographers are amazing humans, but we need recognition that professional photographers are also women, and they are holding their own in this incredibly male-dominated industry.
What are you working on at the moment and do you have any particular plans for the future?
Building my business is my main priority at the moment, so branding photography sessions, headshots and I’ve also just launched a stock photo & resource library for bloggers & creative businesses – Studio 19 Stock.
I have a couple of massive personal projects I’m working on, and reworking my other website to reflect these. I keep getting asked for lighting advice by makers, so am looking to run some product photography workshops early next year. And last but not least, I’d like to speak at some events, share my story with other self-taught photographers, and become a Sony ambassador!
Are there any tips that you’d like to give to aspiring photographers?
Yes – get out there and shoot, even once you know what you’re doing, there really is no substitute for learning a particular situation than doing it.
I learn something from almost every shoot, and I spend two weeks a year shooting wizard school in a castle, putting myself and my cameras through their paces and facing every possible eventuality on a shoot. The changing (and terrible!) light in a castle aside, there are complex costumes, hundreds of characters and scenes happening constantly, so it’s a glorious challenge and gives me so much practice and learning time. And if you can successfully capture an escaped Minotaur, nothing back in the real world is going to worry you for long!
Also, trust your gut. At the start of my photography journey, and before I had the technical knowledge I do now, I had a long period of problems with focus in my images. The problem turned out to be due to a faulty autofocus unit in camera I’d bought brand new, but every single person I asked, over a period of about two years, told me the problem was my technique & skill, and dismissed my insistence that I was able to achieve focus on my previous camera.
The turning point came when I met a group of female photographers who were supportive and collaborative, and one of them came to meet me, diagnosed the problem and helped me get it fixed within a few weeks.
So if you’re having any persistent technical issues, and working on your technique isn’t helping, get your camera booked in for a check-up & calibration – there is a definite chance the problem is not you, but your gear.
Finally, but most importantly, your validation must come from yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of shooting what you think you should – photography should always be a joy first and foremost. If you turn pro you will absolutely have days where you’re working on things which are not your preferred subjects or style, so make sure that when you’re shooting for yourself, you’re following your own vision and not looking for external yeses from other people.